Saltwater Portrait

The Markerts put wonder in most wonderful time of year

Couple lights up holidays with collection of aluminum trees
December 6, 2011

If Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, the most wonderful sight in Rehoboth Beach during the holidays is the Markerts' sun room.

Lighting up the couple’s house on New Castle Street Ext. is one of the lost artifacts of the mid-20th century: aluminum Christmas trees.

The Markerts are Kate and Francis, better known to friends as “Bunky,” who got his first aluminum tree in 1992 while he was living in Cleveland. Bunky says at night, his 11 trees look like the aurora borealis. Others might say from the outside, it looks something like a discotheque.

“They’re really a '60s phenomenon. They were designed primarily as an artificial tree, and I think they found their niche because at the time, they didn’t really make decent looking artificial trees,” Bunky said. “I didn’t have one when I was a kid. The people across the street had one. I remember my parents sort of ridiculing them, thinking they were in bad taste, but secretly, I think my father liked them.”

As for what visitors think, Kate said, “You really don’t know what people think about it. Do they think we’re completely wacky? Not everyone shares our aesthetic.”

“We were born in the '50s, and we have an appreciation for kitschy stuff,” Bunky said.

“For me, my business is art museums. So in a way, it’s like the complete opposite end of the kind of high culture that I spend my whole professional life in. It’s just kind of a wonder, going to the other extreme,” Kate said.

She is the director of Hillwood Estate Museum and Garden in Washington, D.C., and has previously worked at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

While they both grew up in Baltimore, since they’ve been married, the Markerts have lived in Cleveland, Hartford, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. They consider their home base to be Rehoboth, where Bunky, who is retired, serves as a member of the city planning commission.

The couple has been married since 1998. A casual observer might think it was longer, given how they seem to finish each other’s sentences. It’s a second marriage for both.

While their tree count is into double digits, the Markerts are still looking to add a few more.

“I want a pink one,” Kate said.

“They made pink ones. They are extremely rare, and they tend to go for a lot of money. Some of the nicer ones are still commanding a lot of money,” Bunky said. His first tree, which is still put out on display for Christmas, was purchased at a flea market.

“I was working with a guy who was selling and collecting Lionel trains and stuff, so he was an avid flea-marketer. I just said, ‘Let’s get a silver tree,’” he said.

Aluminum trees can come in different colors and styles. The Markerts have green, gold and silver trees, and some come with a rotating color wheel that attaches to the base. The color wheel’s light reflects off the silver tree.

Getting aluminum trees these days is harder than it used to be. Bunky said just the base light can go for $200 to $300 on eBay. The Markerts have accumulated their trees through eBay, flea markets, rummage sales and donations from friends.

“The good news is we don’t have a lot of dough tied up in this. The deal is to try to find them in good condition. We have a couple that are kind of dogs. But in a way, we kind of like them because they’re Charlie Brown trees,” Bunky said.

Most of the trees are in the sun room, which becomes, as Kate calls it, The Grove. The trees are simply put together: each branch comes in a separate sleeve and attaches to a base. Bunky said most of the trees were made by an aluminum cookware company in Manitowac, Wis. They were mManufactured in the late 1950s through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, but Bunky says aluminum trees fell out of fashion when manufacturers came up with better artificial Christmas trees.

“It’s one of those things where we just sort of gradually accumulated more. This is the first sort of place we’ve displayed them,” he said.

Trees aren’t the Mackerts only Christmas collection. Kate is a collector of Christmas aprons, which can be found decorating every nook and cranny of the house. Her collection is up to 50.

“Anything you get in a lot suddenly becomes something else. Just one of them, not so interesting. But when you get 50 of them…” she said. “I don’t know, people started giving them to me. It’s part of that whole cocktail culture. I just find them completely charming.”

What aprons are for Kate, Christmas records are for Bunky. He has a huge box of Christmas LPs that he has accumulated over the years.

“I try to strive for things that I consider to be good and really bad. I’m not looking for middle, because there’s a lot of middle. I mean, how many times can you hear Perry Como? But I was in Walmart the other day and they had an REO Speedwagon Christmas CD, and I did not buy it.  And I really think I need to,” Bunky said with a laugh.

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